In August 1965, the American Sociological Association convention was held in Chicago. Playboy’s Mansion was then located in Chicago, and Hugh Hefner invited about twenty sociologists to the mansion. I was one of them.
When we arrived at the mansion, an aide met us at the door and led us up the stairs to a very large room that was dimly lit. There was a bar serving drinks, and at the other end of this huge room, some people were gathered around what seemed like an open trapdoor in the floor. I walked over and saw that the trapdoor was directly above a pool. If you had the courage to do so, you could dive from the living room right into the pool. There were several women in the pool who worked for Playboy Enterprises in one capacity or another.
Another interesting feature of that massive room was a glassed-in area right across from the bar where about fifteen or twenty Playboy women were eating supper. I noticed one middle-aged woman there, and I asked her if she worked for Playboy. She responded. “Yes. You might call me a chaperone of the bunnies who live in the mansion. My job is to help organize their day and make sure they have everything they need.”
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I would add here that the word bunnies was used at that time for the women who worked at the Playboy Clubs that were springing up around the country. Today, this word might be taken as a derogatory term, but it wasn’t seen that way by many in 1965. The chaperones and the bunnies reminded me of a sorority house with a den mother. One of the sociologists, Jim Coleman, went into the dining room and began talking to several of the young women there. He later explained to me that he had wanted to get their version of how they felt about posing for the magazine or working in the Playboy Clubs. Did they find it demeaning, and what was their goal in doing it? I was glad to see that a well-known sociologist like Jim Coleman was interested in sexual science. We needed more good people in our area of specialty.
We had been there at least an hour before Hefner made his grand entrance. He came in wearing a shimmering, highly finished brown suit. (The smoking jacket must have come later.) He was of average height and was rather slim. He seemed very intense. As soon as I could, I engaged him in conversation. I wanted to see if he knew of the basic research that had been done by sociologists on sexuality. l was pleasantly surprised. He seemed quite aware of my work and that of others, and even more impressive was his understanding of the distinctive societal approach that sociologists take. In the few places where he wasn’t fully informed, one of the two men standing next to him would chime in and respond. He impressed me favorably even though I was a bit turned off by the CEO image that he and his assistants presented. But, after all, that is what he was. He headed the Playboy Enterprises, and he was a multimillionaire.
I hung around a bit more and spoke to some of the women who were living there at the time, and I learned more about their feelings concerning their role in Playboy Enterprises. They seemed certain that being part of Playboy Enterprises in any role would benefit their future careers. They felt it would further their goals in acting, modeling, dancing, movies, or whatever. They indicated that there was no pressure on them to do anything sexual in order to advance themselves. They seemed to be frank and open in what they said to me. After being there a few hours, I said my good-byes, and Si Goode and I headed back to the convention hotel. Goode was a brilliant sociologist who had written about the family and also about love from a cross-cultural perspective, and I always enjoyed talking with him. We agreed that it had been a remarkable evening. We had been given a glimpse into a sex-related type of enterprise, and it had broadened my understanding of commercial sex in America.
We talked about the very successful Playboy Clubs, where the waitresses wore revealing bunny costumes that we were told were uncomfortably tight. That sort of club seemed very much a part of our ambivalent sexual culture. These clubs offered a look-but-do-not-touch approach, and that was very American. Our culture was still a long way from taking a more relaxed view of sexuality, but at that same time, in 1965, the barriers were beginning to crumble all over America, and at least some of our sexual ambivalence and anti-hedonism was being dismantled.
If you had read Playboy‘s philosophy writings, you would have seen that they supported sexual change in America. Their philosophy favored increasing the range of sexual behavior that Americans accepted as moral. They wanted homosexuality and a wider range of heterosexuality to be accepted, but even the Playboy writers hadn’t yet conceptualized how to achieve the sexual pluralism they championed. However, there was no question in my mind that the sexual behavior and attitudes of Americans was at that moment changing dramatically, and I believed that sexual pluralism would be gradually popularized in our society by these changes.
Ira L. Reiss is a sociologist specializing in the study of human sexuality. He is the author of 14 books. Excerpt taken from An Insider’s View of Sexual Science Since Kinsey, published by Rowman & Littlefield.